Motoring: Land Rover gives Discovery a well-timed make-over

Tried-and-trusted styling conceals a wealth of new features.
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The Independent Online
LAND ROVER may still be the most profitable wing of BMW's Rover subsidiary, but its star, the Discovery, has been waning for years. LR's mid-liner, launched in 1989 to cover middle ground between the utilitarian Defender and the luxurious Range Rover, was Britain's (and Europe's) best- selling 4x4 for longer than the opposition care to admit.

Recently, however, performance - particularly on-road performance - had fallen behind that of most of its rivals. Ponderous, cumbersome and (as a diesel) slow, the old Discovery had become bogged down by mediocrity.

Just as well, then, that its replacement is a revelation. Not that you'd know from appearances, as the new model looks much like the old. Market research had revealed that the Discovery's best-loved feature was its styling, characterised by the kicked-up roof and "Alpine" windows. Don't change it said owners. Basically, Rover hasn't, even though most of the outer panelling is new (only the tailgate is carried over).

Wider in track and longer in body (to accommodate a third row of forward- facing rear seats) the newcomer does have a more purposeful stance than its gawky predecessor.

More dramatic improvements lurk beneath the skin. The harsh and rattly old four-cylinder engine has been replaced by a five-cylinder turbo, which nine out of 10 Discoverys sold in Britain will have. It is quieter, smoother, more economical and peppier than the outgoing "four."

It will also go 12,000 miles between oil changes and needs no exhaust catalyst to meet emission regulations.

LR could have left it at that, as the new engine has transformed performance and refinement. But it didn't. In came new transmission and suspension systems and with them more acronyms.

All new Discoverys get electronic traction control (ETC). Traction, off road or on, is now controlled automatically, making tricky progress easier in unskilled hands. It works as well with the optional (and preferable) automatic transmission as it does with the standard manual gearbox.

The anti-lock brakes are as effective on the road as they are when nosediving down a slippery precipice. At the press of a dash button, hill descent control (HDC) - first used on the Freelander - comes into play, preventing wheel lock-up and possible loss of control.

Perhaps the greatest advance, though, is active cornering enhancement (ACE) which counters body lean when negotiating bends and roundabouts. You'll find no heave-ho roll here.

In combination with self-levelling rear suspension, ACE gives the new Discovery car-like handling and responses, despite its lofty build (great for sightseeing) and high centre of gravity (scourge of the old car).

Although ACE is an extra on base models - as is self-levelling suspension (SLS) - even without it cornering behaviour is much improved. Ditto the steering, which has been made much more responsive, if not exactly sharp.

Over an off-road course that included fording the river Spey, Land Rover's latest seemed as close to irresistible as you can get this side of a tank. On manicured roads (the natural habitat of most Discoverys) it was comfortable, civilised and astonishingly composed.

I never enjoyed driving the wallowy old Discovery but the crisp new one I could happily live with, especially as the finish and (allegedly) the reliability are much improved. Who needs a Range Rover?